The ‘Great Mother’ – Cybele, Rhea and the Cailleach

The folklore and fairy-tales of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man maintain a memory of an important female character whose prominence and mystery outstrips all others of these regions. Known as the ‘Cailleach’ (pron. kal-yack), her mythology portrayed her as an ancient forebear of humanity – perhaps so old that her body, her existence, her very essence appears as one with the landscape, which she is credited with creating. On account of her age she is ascribed great knowledge of things past, but also in many traditions claims knowledge of what will come to pass in the future. She is a mistress of herds, an industrious worker, but somewhat reclusive and prone to be found in wild, out-of-the-way places – particularly mountain-tops. She clearly relies on no male partner, although in some tales she is associated with one – albeit in a somehow estranged manner. Students of ancient European paganism might well recognise in her the image of whom the Romans referred to as Magna Mater – the Great Goddess from Anatolia’s Phrygian highlands, known as Cybele who was identical with the Greek ‘Mother of the Gods’, Rhea, wife of old Kronos himself.


The Phrygian ‘Great Goddess’ was said to have originated among the Thracians who, according to Herodotus,  were once known as Bryges and crossed over into Asia Minor to occupy its central uplands. She was said in some sources to be the mother of the god Sabazios, the ‘wild horseman’ who became identified with the Greek Dionysos. It is of interest that the sacred rites of both Phrygian Cybele (who remained identified in Thracia as both Cottys (‘the sitter’?) and Bendis) and the Greek Dionysos consisted of wild orgia involving ecstatic dances, processions, the use of intoxicants and sacred rhythmic music involving drums, cymbals, flutes and horns. Participants emphasised the mysteries of nature’s chthonic fertility and recurring constancy. Whereas the Dionysia were typically led by female celebrants, the rites of Cybele were led by a priesthood of castrated eunuchs who took on the roles of women. In spite of this, the similarities were striking and point towards a common older religion, whose origins lay as much within Europe as they did in Indo-European Asia.

Cybele was particularly associated with cult centres in the Anatolian highlands – her shrines (like those of the Persians, Medes and many Celtic peoples) occurring on mountains. The same was true of Rhea, whose main shrine on Crete was situated high on Mount Ida: it was here she was supposed to have hidden the infant Zeus from his cannibalistic father Kronos. The other Mount Ida – in the Phrygian Troad – was sacred to Cybele. Other oracle sites from Greece to Asia Minor were located at high altitude – Delphi being a notable and famous example, which was apparently an oracle to Gaia/Ge before it became sacred to the ‘divine son of light’, Apollo. Mount Fengari on the island of Samothrace (‘Samos of Thrace’) was another site for the oracular cult of the Great Mother of the Gods, whereas on the island of Samos off the Lydian-Ionian coast of Asia Minor, the cult of Hera (a linguistic metathesis of ‘Rhea’) held sway.

When Rome officially adopted the cult of Cybele towards the end of the Punic Wars (3rdC BCE) it was at the behest of the oracular cult of the Sibylline priestesses who appear to have functioned as part of a network of Apollonian oracles across the ancient Mediterranean world, extending from Ionia in western Asia Minor. These appear to have had more ancient links with the worship of the Great Goddess than history generally leads us to believe – perhaps on account of the identity between the ever-youthful Apollo, and Cybele’s divine consort, Attis. The phonetic similarities of the words ‘Sybil’ (originally Greek) and ‘Cybele’ point towards a more ancient link, that the Roman Republic’s dominant and Hellenophile Patrician statesmen perhaps believed they needed to remind their peoples of during the crisis. Presumably, there was a connection between the ecstatic celebratory rites of Cybele and the ecstatic visionary states of the ancient Sybils, although the secret and initiatory aspects of the cults of these gods must leave much open to speculation.

Returning to the northwest shores of Atlantic Europe, is seems quite apparent that there must be some connection between Cybele/Rhea and the craggy old crone of Gaelic myth who seems to share these important mountain-loving and oracular attributes. We have no definite archaeological evidence pointing to the worship of Cybele or Rhea in Roman Britain, and the fact that the ‘Cailleach’ mythology comes from lands which largely fell outside of Rome’s direct cultural influence suggests that the Cailleach legends possibly evolved in-situ and before the coming of Christianity.

That there was certainly Bacchic/Dionysian and Mithraic cult practised among the Roman-Britons: we can be certain of this from archaeology, but there was no evidence of Cybele, which was apparently a city-cult at Rome. Instead, the closest ‘maternal’ divinities we come across are those known as the Matres or Nutrices – typically represented as a trio of seated women variously nursing or holding bowls or cornucopias. A number of stelae or carved stone panels depicting them survive, and they were also a feature seen in other Romanised Celtic provinces of Europe – perhaps bought to Britain by auxiliary troops serving in the legions.

A Romano-Gallic 'matres' statue from Germany.

A Romano-Gallic ‘matres’ statue from Germany.

The same as depicted on a stela from the Roman fort at Housesteads, GB.

The same as depicted on a stela from the Roman fort at Housesteads, GB.

Apart from their seated pose, they have little else in common with the iconography of Cybele. However, the ‘Celtic Triplicity’ of their form must be considered to be a significant North European religious element. This idea (seemingly copied into Christianity) held that gods had three aspects, and were often depicted ‘3-in-1’. However these triune females still don’t on the surface exhibit any relation to the Cailleach myths from un-Romanised areas of Britain and Ireland.

It is possible, one might suppose, that mythology may have diffused out into these ‘peripheral’ areas and taken root, but it is much more likely that the Cailleach legends evolved in-situ rather than being introduced by continental legionaries. What seems more likely is that the Cailleach mythology formed under the same empirical pre-Roman, pre-Hellenic religious worldview that underpinned the origins of Cybele in Thracia and Phrygia – a worldview that significantly preceded the European Iron Age. This may have had its roots way back in the pre-metal ages when evidence of a widespread religious ideology begins to be demonstrated in the remains of stone and wood temple structures and burial sites with structural commonalities that occur in the archaeological record across Europe. Alternatively, the origins of metalworking in Asia Minor in the Chalcolithic period (c.4000 BC onwards) may have brought the goddess with this technological culture… The connection of Irish and Manx Cailleach legends to those of Cuillean the Smith (Weland to the northeastern Europeans) may indicate this to be true.

Naomh Pádraig – commentary on the hagiographies Part 1

There is some controversy about who the ‘real’ Patrick was: Although traditionally credited with the Christianisation of Ireland, we know that an important Roman Gaul called Palladius (also known by the ‘power name’ Patricius) was a church leader (Archdeacon and/or Bishop) in Ireland during the early 5th century before the conventional ‘Patrick’, as were a number of other British and continental churchmen. Britain (and Ireland) had remained under the influence of a strain of christianity called Pelagianism deemed heretical by the continental church as it denied original sin and the need for infant baptism. Palladius was probably one of the people given the task of bringing the Irish and British into conformity. Pelagius was an Atlantic European whose Christian doctrines were probably influenced by syncresis with Atlantic paganism, and whose mission and philosophy sought to influence the heart of Christian doctrine and the  Mediterranean church hierarchy during the 4th century. Even in the 2nd century, there was a theologian and bishop of Lyons (Lugudunum) called Ireneus which might well mean ‘Irishman’. Remember – the Druids were an intellectual collegium of northern Europe who were said to have partaken of the study of a number of non-native philosophies, of which christianity was only an interesting new development!

No – Patrick (ca. late 5thC) was NOT the first to bring Christianity to the Irish, but left his name to represent this process in posterity. His prominence appears to emerge with the creation of a political historical ‘event horizon’ formed by the saturation of Christian culture and the apparent establishment of Christianised sacral kingship during the 6th-7th centuries. The earliest Irish hagiography that survives today is that of St Brigit of Kildare, which somewhat surprisingly makes no mention of him. 

The earliest accounts of St Patrick are found preserved in the 9thC Book of Armagh (Ard Macha or Armagh layed claim to be Patrick’s founding church) and include works seemingly written by the actual saint himself as well as two significant 7thC hagiographies. The two original works are two latin letters known as the ‘Confession‘ and the ‘Epistle to Coroticus’: The first is a justificatory account written in the first person of his life and principles. The other is addressed to a military leader or king called Coroticus  (a Romano-British name), complaining about the slaughter and enslavement of some of Patrick’s white-clad Irish missionaries.

The Confessio contains to magical exploits or much in the way of Christianised pagan themes, but is replete with accounts of visions and the saint’s interpretation of providences. It seems to suggest that Ireland was completely subjugated to christianity by the time of Patrick writing it towards the end of his life, although in reality it is more a description of his mission’s popularity among the nobility and their slaves (many of whom were Christians from Britannia). It neither mentions magi or druids or says anything about native Irish religion save for a reference to ‘idola et inmunda’, usually translated as ‘idols and unclean things’ but which might also be read literally as ‘spirit images and worldly things’ – a good appraisal of the Atlantic religion in my opinion. The Latin ‘idola’ is the same as the Greek word ‘eidola’, meaning ‘spirit image’ – it came to represent physical statuary images in the later classical period as christianity increasingly defined these in terms of their material rather than spiritual value. The word munda means ‘refined’, ‘subtle’ or ‘delicate’ (properties synonymous with spirit, and possibly fire and air in the elemental doctrine of the ancients) so inmunda is the opposite. Remember that Christianity was a purificatory religion that rejected worldly things in favour of its ‘higher’ intellectual religious interpretations… Paganism looked to the world to extrapolate its visions.

Hagiographies of the 7thC:

After these the next texts dealing with his life are hagiographical and therefore of a style including miracles and fantastical accounts. These come from the 7th century – a considerable period after the time of his supposed ministry – and are by two quite different authors. The first is by Muirchú moccu Machtheni and is called Vita sancti Patricii or ‘Life of Patrick’. This work (which exists in several fragmentary copies surviving from different eras) credits Patrick with the conversion of Ireland, as well as name-checking Cogitosus of Kildare (author of the earlier Vitae Sanctae Brigitae) as the author’s spiritual ‘father’, perhaps implying that Muirchú was following his hagiographical lead. This also suggests that Brigitine monasticism may have preceded Patrician monasticism in Ireland, as Cogitosus made no mention of Patrick at all – something which would be surprising if he held such precedence throughout Ireland in the late 5th and early 6th centuries during Brigit’s supposed lifetime! Muirchú’s work is marked by its employing Cogitosus’ style of fantastical miracles, but in particular (perhaps befitting the saint’s gender) these are achieved in acts of magical combat mano a mano with a series of Druids. It is written with a distinct Northern bias, and makes particular mention of Armagh. It dismisses the mission of Palladius as irrelevant.

By contrast, the other 7thC ‘hagiography’ of Patrick from the Book of Armagh – the Collecteana of the Bishop Tírechán – is a much more diverse affair, that spends more time dealing with Patrick’s supposed missions outside of the North and deals more with his conversions of Ireland’s western and southern monarchs as well as the Kinf of Tara.  Tírechán spends more time discussing Patrick’s acquisition of specific pagan locations and conversion of these and their pagan celebrations or traditions to Christian alternatives. The Collecteana contains somewhat more detail of paganism than the Vita. For instance, in the famous passage where the saint and his party are met at a pagan holy well by two princesses who had gone there to make their ablutions or devotions:


(1) Then holy Patrick came to the well called Clébach, on the slopes of Cruachu to the east, before sunrise, and they sat beside the well, (2) and, behold, the two daughters of king Loíguire, fair-haired Ethne and red-haired Fedelm, came to the well, as women are wont to do, in the morning to wash, and they found the holy assembly of bishops with Patrick beside the well.(3) And they did not know whence they were or of what shape or from what people or from what region, but thought they were men of the sid (the word used in the original latin text!) or earth-gods or a phantom; (4) and the maidens said to them: ‘Whence are you and whence have you come?’ and Patrick said to them: ‘It would be better for you to profess our true God than to ask questions about our race.’ (5) The first maiden said: ‘Who is God and where is God and whose God is he and where is his dwelling-place? Has your God sons and daughters, gold and silver? Is he ever-living, is he beautiful, have many fostered his son, are his daughters dear and beautiful in the eyes of the men of the earth? Is he in the sky or in the earth or in the water, in rivers, in mountains, in valleys? (7) Give us an account of him; how shall he be seen, how is he loved, how is he found, is he found in youth, in old age?’

The passage is replete with references to themes that Tírechán considered essentially pagan – of particular interest is the motif of the well (a spring) which recurs again and again in Irish hagiographies as a place of pagan worship, to be converted to Irish Christian use. Next the use of the word Irish word sid in this Latin text, and its use in contradistinction to the deorum terrenorum (earth gods) and fantassiam (‘phantoms’ or ‘images in the mind’). In fact, Tírechán used a number of native words dealing with pagan things, where no Latin equivalent would suffice. For instance, the word erdathe is described as the pagan name for the ‘day of judgement’, and the druid’s tonsure is called airbacc giunnae.

Discussion of some of the magical acts attributed to Patrick in Tírechán and Muirchú:

General note: Muirchú (M) and Tírechán (T) use the term magus – ‘druid’ is an invention/insertion of later writers and translators.

The M hagiography is explicitly designed to show Patrick to be equivalent to and greater than the magi (druids) at the court of the King of Tara. It even gives credence to the prophetic powers of these magi by having them accurately foretell the coming of Patrick and Christianity before being defeated by the saint, and either being killed or converted. This is a vehicle expressing some form of continuity from druids to monks and priests. The Hill of Tara appears to have been a spiritual omphalos for Ireland, and M tells of the sacred fires first lit there to be propagated to the rest of Ireland – somewhat akin to the teine-éiginn mentioned by Martin Martin and other Celtic-region  folklore observers between the 17th and 19th centuries. This is why M choses it as Patrick’s primary destination for spreading his ‘spiritual fire’. It is likely that the event was Beltain rather than Easter. The Hill of Uisneach was also associated with Beltain fires. M’s account makes Patrick’s showdown with the Tara druids seem like the showdown between the wizards Gandalf and Saruman in Tolkein’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ epic –  bodies are levitated into the air and dashed to pieces, the sun is blotted out, snow and fog is summoned, and armies are scattered with the twitch of a finger! M wishes to portray a definitive victory over the magi (druids)… The style parallels that of Cogitosus, from whom M admits to have taken his lead. Whereas Cogitosus’ Vita and the Bethu Brigte tries to make Brigit the symbol of the ‘new flame’ of Ireland, the Patrician hagiographers of the 7thC – M in particular – try to assert Patrick’s replacing the pagan fire-kindling festivals (Beltain) and instituting his own Christian Easter fire. Easter or Pascha is/was the most important Christian festival.

The T hagiography is somewhat more reserved, also mentions the assembly at Tailtiu as a place Patrick attended in his combat with the druids – associated (according to the ‘Book of Invasions’/LGE) with Lughnasadh (a harvest-fruition festival) rather than Beltain. Both the Tara and Tailtiu assemblies that T’s Patrick attends are at Easter – Christianity was unable to relate to the cross-quarter-day festivals of the Atlantic peoples! T takes the story of Patrick throughout Ireland, giving a blow-by-blow account of how pagan sites were converted to Christian usage. He even combats birds on what later became the pilgrimage site of Croagh Patrick (‘Cruachán Aigli’) in Co. Mayo in the west – a theme for resisting the principle of ancestral-souls-as-birds, associated with hilltops in the Atlantic religion.  Legends about both Brigit and Kevin also refer to birds, as do those about Brendan and other Irish saints: the association of birds with the dead was an important part of the pagan faith! An anonymous 7thC Irish monastic author (known to scholars as Augustinus Hibernicus) even wrote of this belief in an essay on biblical miracles called De mirabilibus sacrae scripturae:

An unknown Irish author of the early 7th century who wrote a tract known as De mirabilibus sacrae scripturae

In this work, the monkish author makes the following statement about ?local magi when discussing evolution (yes – in the 7th century!): He says that to suggest that one species might actually turn into another (there was a belief in the possibility of interspecies metamorphosis until quite late in the middle ages) was to give assent to:

`… et ridiculosis magorum fabulationibus dicentium in avium substantia majores suos saecula pervolasse, assensum praestare videbimur’ (PL 35.2164).

`… the ridiculous myths of the magicians who say that their ancestors flew through the ages in the form of birds’.

‘Augustine’ was a philosopher-theologian with an excellent grasp on classical latin for a monk of the period. As there are no precedents in Roman, Egyptian or Greek paganism, we have to assume he was talking about the Irish magi – otherwise known as the ‘Druids’!


Barry Cunliffe

Anyone familiar with the work of respected British archaeologist and author Barry Cunliffe will be familiar with his theory of a historic unifying Atlantic Cultural zone.

If unfamiliar with his books, it is highly recommended to start by reading his 2001 book ‘Facing The Ocean: The Atlantic and Its Peoples 8000 BC-AD 1500’ and discover how he uses archaeological evidence to demonstrate how this culture evolved in situ over a very long period of time, transcending labels such as ‘Celts’, ‘Europeans’, ‘Gaul’, ‘Briton’ and ‘Scandinavian’ etc. He expands and refines the observations in subsequent publications.

Atlantic European (what I call ‘Atlantean’) Culture is a regional culture which, although it evolved from the Mesolithic, through the Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age periods, kept in touch with its roots in the landscape which ultimately formed and informed it: the Atlantic seaboard of Europe.

NOTE: I hope soon (late 2014) to be posting a review of Barry Cunliffe and John T. Koch’s ‘Celtic From the West’ – watch this space…

The Ness of Brodgar

Archaeologists expose the sophisticated stone masonry of the 5000 year old Ness of Brodgar temple complex in Orkney

Archaeologists expose the sophisticated stone masonry of the 5000 year old Ness of Brodgar temple complex in Orkney

In 2008, archaeologists working within sight of the striking stone circle known as the Ring of Brodgar discovered what appears to be a massive and very important stone-built temple complex on the Ness of Brodgar. This ‘temple’ or palace contains evidence of painted masonry and among its remains have been found carved stones (including a carved stone ball), and statuary items made of red clay (and I think here of the ‘idol’ once venerated on Inniskea). The temple is associated with a massive rampart wall some 4 metres thick that runs along the edge of the Ness.

Visitors examining the remains of another sophisticated Neolithic structure in Orkney - Scara Brae.

Visitors examining the remains of another sophisticated Neolithic structure in Orkney – Scara Brae.

The discovery at the Ness of Brodgar demonstrates the sophisticated neolthic Atlantic culture’s architectural prowess already known about from the site of Scara Brae, uncovered from sand dunes in a storm during the early 20th century, and thought initially to be Roman.

The Ness of Brodgar is the thin finger of land in the middle of the map. The famous Maes Howe cairn whose chamber aligns the winter solstice lies just southeast

The Ness of Brodgar is the thin finger of land in the middle of the map. The famous Maes Howe cairn whose chamber aligns the winter solstice lies just southeast

The sophistication and scale of the Neolithic stone circles, temples, tombs and settlements across the eastern Atlantic Archipelago (ie – the British Isles and Ireland) points towards a very special culture with a deep spiritual connection to their landscape, the heavens and the cycles of the seasons.

The Céide Fields

The Céide Fields in Co. Mayo, Eire

The Céide Fields in Co. Mayo, Eire

Emerging from under the blanket bogs of Co. Mayo in Ireland, the Céide Fields represent one of the earliest sites with evidence of organised human agriculture and have been dated as nearly 6000 years old – from before the introduction of metalworking. As well as the remains of stone houses and field walls, the site is associated with the typical megalithic religious and funerary structures found throughout Atlantic Europe from this period – evidence of a particular regional culture with its own philosophy and way of life that was shared. Paleobotanical evidence points to this barren boggy landscape having once been much warmer and covered in pine forest. Other areas in Mayo and the wider ancient province of Connaught contain similar remains.